Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Why Obama Failed to Become the Transformative President

Obama - in the glow of his victory in 2008- when expectations ran high after his campaign themes of hope and change. What happened after he became President had most to do with his failure to adopt a political identity which would have provided a compass for governance.

As a new Constitutional crisis unfolds, that the CIA has been accused (by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, no less)  of breaking into Senate Intelligence Committee computers, those not au fait with deep politics would be advised to pay rapt attention. The issue revolves around an internal review known as the Panetta Review, which highlights severe transgressions committed by the spooks in their rendition and torture programs. The CIA - according to Feinstein, as well as Mark Udall- broke into Senate Intelligence Committee computers and eliminated the key files,.

 As I have written in a number of blog posts, especially last October and November, the CIA as part of the national security state (with the NSA) has risen to become so powerful - throwing its weight around since the 1950s - that its power threatens the Constitution. Ike knew it - which is why he set up 'The President's Board of Consultants on Foreign Intelligence Activity'. The Board concluded that the CIA's clandestine services were "operating for the most part on an autonomous and free-wheeling basis in highly critical areas."  This was after the CIA sponsored a coup in Guatemala in 1954 to oust Jacobo Arbenz its President.

JFK also understood the threat, especially after the Bay of Pigs - which is why he fired the CIA chief Allen Dulles and his Deputy Director, Charles Cabell. It is also why Kennedy emulated Ike in setting up a Foreign Intelligence Advisory board - the express purpose of which was to bring the CIA under independent control.  Kennedy addressed the group on May 15, 1961 and informed them he was "undertaking a total reassessment of U.S. covert action policies and programs".

None of these boards or supervisory incentives worked and the CIA broke out every time to become ever more powerful.  Now Obama, like his predecessors, will likely be faced with finding a resolution - but what will he do? Will he become 'transformative' and side with the People and the Constitution or will he side with Brennan (instead of firing him as JFK would have done) and the national security state.

The answer is predictable if one understands Obama's political temperament - which is to always avoid taking a strong stand, avoid looking partisan (and if he sided with Feinstein and the Senate Dems he would look that way) and avoiding severe conflict - which would likely occur if he sided with the People against Brennan and the CIA. Besides, his stand against Snowden and other whistle blowers discloses he is no longer invested in "transparency" which he proclaimed would be a hallmark of his presidency back in 2008.

Now, David Bromwich (at,   in an article Obama’s Disappearing Act- What Happened to the President He wanted to be?  has examined Obama's political tendencies and temperament  in a deep way and pretty well shown that anyone as early as 2008 could have forecast he'd have turned out the way he has - afraid of political battles, and averse to making powerful  (but politically controversial) moves - say along the lines of JFK or FDR. For example, if he really wanted to he could have closed Guantanamo by Executive Order.

Bromwich's premise (and working title) assumes, of course, that Obama really wanted to be anything different from what he has been.  Which to many of us has been a human Rorschach. Read into  him whatever you want and there it is! Of course, we can dispense at once with the nonsense of the idiots on the Far Right, i.e. that Obama is some kind of “Socialist” or “communist”  - as I overheard an idiot braying the other day while walking out of a movie theater. 
Put it this way: If Obama is a Socialist, far less Communist, then I am a new Roman Catholic convert and a newly confirmed Bishop!

But then, if you ask ten people exactly what Obama is, you will likely get ten different answers, or …..ten different versions of head scratches….with ‘I don’t know’ to follow. Is he pro-War? Don’t know! Is he pro transparency? Odds are he’s not, given his defense of the NSA.  What principles does he espouse? We don't know since if one examines his speeches at any given venue they're all chameleon-like taking on the hue of the environment he's addressing.

Then there are those fulsome quotes he reels off sometimes, as Bromwich notes. For example, the recent response to Russian claiming of the Crimea, which in fact it has much more license and right to claim than we had for claiming Iraq and its oil: Obama said, “Russia was putting itself on the wrong side of history. Bromwich observes:

This might seem a surprising thing for an American president to say. The fate of Soviet Communism taught many people to be wary of invoking History as if it were one’s special friend or teammate. But Obama doubtless felt comfortable because he was quoting himself. “
And here I thought the man was quoting FDR or at least JFK! Quoting himself? Yeppers, from a 2009 inaugural address.  Most striking to me was Bromwich’s observation of Obama while Editor at the Harvard Law Review:

He kept his editorial colleagues happy by insisting that the stance of the Review need not be marked by bias or partisanship. It did not have to be liberal or conservative, libertarian or statist. It could be “all of the above.”

So even then we detected the man’s aversion to being labeled or politically pigeonholed, but which many might construe as a reluctance to be defined, hence remain "slippery" (especially warranted if one has Neoliberal tendencies at heart). Hence, one can appear all things to all people, especially if they really knew one's political stance they might get pissed and not vote for you in the next election. Also, what better way to catapult oneself into elected power?   Especially if one's record in the Senate and Illinois state senate are also non-committal or non-existent.
This is also consonant with having no self-identity or self context. Some might even say, with some justification, it discloses a man without an ideology.  This perhaps might be perceived in the wrong way since these days ideology has such negative overtones, right there next to ‘zealot’ and ‘conspiracy theorist’. But let’s be real!  It is ideology that gives one’s world and perceptions context and color. If you lack an ideology, as an old logic teacher once put it to me, then you will find yourself cast adrift and swayed by any and every meme, blabber or blowhard that might try to influence you. Of course, one always checks his ideology against reality, this is important! But one needs a central POV to make any sense of the world. This is the very quality Obama lacks and explains many of his otherwise confounding decisions, such as setting up a debt commission and proposing a Social Security cut via the chained CPI..
A leader lacking  a compass of ideological conviction or defined principles ends up everywhere and nowhere.  ON all sides of every issue and no sides. He takes this ambiguous stance as trying to please everyone, but the game can't last forever ('you can fool some of the people some of the time" etc.), so ultimately he pleases no one and his poll numbers will begin to recede.   In this sense Bromwich's next observation might be very apropos:
"He was elected to govern when little was known about his approach to the practical business of leading people. The unexplored possibility was, of course, that little was known because there was not much to know. Of the Chicago organizers trained in Saul Alinsky’s methods of community agitation, he had been considered among the most averse to conflict. Incongruously, as Jeffrey Stout has pointed out in Blessed Are the Organized, Obama shunned “polarization” as a valuable weapon of the weak. His tendency, instead, was to begin a protest by depolarizing. "
 This explains why, for example, he tried the futile tack of trying to appease the Repukes after being elected and launching his 2009 stimulus. Trying to compromise, and being only reviled in return, not grasping his role was to BE a partisan and fight like one for the rest of us against these monied interests. But he couldn't abide conflict. The hard fact is that if Obama had allowed fewer compromise measures in his stimulus plan (like the tax cuts) and increased it to $1.5 trillion as opposed to the paltry $787 m, the jobs numbers would have brightened much sooner.
He also could have helped himself - as The Financial Times noted at the time- by repealing the Bush tax cuts for everyone. This single step would have obviated the need for all the later showdowns and theatrics, including the ridiculous debt ceiling standoffs, and the sequester.   Then there was his signature achievement, the Affordable Care Act, but instead of at least fighting to enable a public option he turned it over to a Dem-led Senate Committee, which also featured Max Baucus and three Repukes. It was little wonder it turned out the way it did, but the options ought to have been much better.
Bromwich has a term for this:  "leading from behind". Instead of standing out there and taking "point" - staying in the recesses and letting others do the major work.
This was also true in approving the 2009 surge in Afghanistan, when he ought to have said NO to Gates and the Joint Chiefs. But there was his next error. Trying to assemble and deploy a "team of rivals". This also explains why neocons like Victoria Nuland still inhabit the halls of the State Dept. when they ought to have been shown the door. (Nuland is the prime suspect in the recent coup in Ukraine to install Arseniy Yatsenuk, aka 'Yats' as a neocon puppet).
Apart from that, Bromwich devotes a good bit to Obama's belief in "preferences" in his subsection 'The Preferential President'.   He writes:

the truth is that Obama’s convictions were never strong. He did not find this out until his convictions were tested, and they were not tested until he became president.

Perhaps the thin connection between Obama’s words and his actions does not support the use of the word “conviction” at all. Let us say instead that he mistook his preferences for convictions — and he can still be trusted to tell us what he would prefer to do.
But expressing preferences isn’t leadership, or even "leading from behind". Sure, JFK would have ‘preferred’ not to face down U.S. Steel and earn the wrath of the corporatocracy, but he knew he had to do it for the welfare of the nation. Hence, he threatened that corporation with removing its defense contracts unless it complied and didn’t raise steel prices in the spring of 1962.  Similarly, Kennedy would have ‘preferred’ not to have to confront his Joint Chiefs over their intent to bomb and invade Cuba during the Cuban missile crisis, but he did so because he realized the preservation of life on Earth may well depend on it. 
 Kennedy also would have preferred not to get involved – realizing the political costs to himself and his party - in the civil rights movement. But he did, and when he federalized the National Guards in Mississippi and Alabama in 1963 he knew it was the right thing to do, but also knew it would cost the Democratic Party in the South.....forever. I doubt Obama would have done a similar thing.
Also illuminating, as Bromwich notes:
"More than most people, Obama has been a creature of his successive environments. He talked like Hyde Park when in Hyde Park. He talks like Citigroup when at the table with Citigroup. And in either milieu, he likes the company well enough and enjoys blending in. "
Again, we see the lack of self- clarity or identity.  Hence, reinforcing Bromwich's observation that:
"In discussions about Obama, one occasionally hears it said — in a mood between bewilderment and forbearance — that we have not yet known the man"

Being a ‘creature of one’s environments’ means, however, that one has no self-identity or self-context.  (Which again also touches on ideology) Ralph Waldo Emerson called it, a “self culture” – meaning whatever the venue or context  ventured into, you yourself remained centered and can’t lose yourself. You also know yourself enough to be confident of who and what you are without having to try to be a chameleon.  The problem is, clearly, Obama doesn’t have any self-context or center which is exactly why he often seems to be on the wrong sides of issues

It’s why he could talk of “transparency” at the outset of his administration then end up being the most secretive president in history, who also invoked the archaic “Espionage Act” of 1917 and use it against whistle blowers more than anyone else. It is why he could mouth liberal rhetoric in his campaign  then appoint a ‘debt commission’ intent on cutting “entitlements” – including  naming a guy (Alan Simpson) who once referred to Social Security as a ‘cow with 300 million tits”.
It’s why he could receive a Nobel Peace Prize, yet never really earned it – instantly going on to marshal a surge in Afghanistan – and even talk of staying there until 2024.  Bromwich again:
"It is no less true that by postponement and indecision, by silence and by speaking on both sides, he has allowed the obstacles to grow larger. Consider his “all of the above” energy policy, which impartially embraces ........deep-sea drilling, wind farms, solar panels, Arctic drilling, nuclear plants, fracking for natural gas, and “clean coal.”
Such a scatter-shot energy policy would never be remotely conceived by a person of ideology. The reason is that such a person, a President say, has focus which enables him to filter those aspects or elements irrelevant to his ideology out of the picture.  It means, in the case of energy policy, that if one were a true liberal one shuns Arctic drilling, fracking for natural gas and clean coal. This is also why I worry that Obama will end up approving the Keystone pipeline.  Indeed, as Bromwich notes:
"The Keystone XL pipeline, if it is built, will bring carbon-dense tar sands from Canada to the Gulf Coast, and probably Obama would prefer not to see the pipeline built. Yet it would be entirely in character for him to approve and justify its construction, whether in the name of temporary jobs, oil industry profits, trade relations with Canada, or all of the above."
So there it is. A presidency predicated on 'preference' and leading from behind. Those of us who voted for Obama - twice in fact - can' t but help imagine the presidency that might have been had he not been held back and his self-image and leadership diluted by this lack of a center. This obsession with preference over principles.
There are still crucial decisions to come, and we hope Obama can make them to reflect the President we'd hoped for. It starts with his response after the Crimean referendum is held this weekend, and the likely positive vote for annexation. It also extends to the current CIA -Senate Intelligence Committee fracas. How will he respond?
Will he merely only measure up to the man Bromwich (and many others) believe him to be, or will he rise to the occasions needed and disclose the transformative leader he might have been.
The whole world is watching!
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